HS BASKETBALL: NORTHERN CAMBRIA 58, APOLLO-RIDGE 53 -- Senior-laden Colts move on to round of 16
EBENSBURG — While Apollo-Ridge was playing with house money after a Cinderella run to the WPIAL final four, Northern Cambria and its five senior starters had much more on the line in the first round of the state playoffs.
In states for the fourth straight year, the Colts maturely weathered a first-half storm and put away Apollo-Ridge in the second half, holding off the Vikings, 58-53, in a PIAA Class AA boys’ basketball game Saturday night at Central Cambria High School.
“Coming into this, the kids didn’t want to just set up for one (game),” Northern Cambria coach Dan Weber said. “They got in this with the understanding, we’re not coming in here to just win one game or play in this like we did three years ago.”
The Colts (22-5) picked up their second state playoff win in that span, improving to 2-3 in PIAA postseason play since 2010.
They earned it against an upstart Apollo-Ridge team (18-9), which knocked off Neshannock, then pulled off stunning upsets of Sto-Rox and Jeannette in the WPIAL playoffs to reach the state tournament for just the second time since 1991.
“I’m really proud of the kids,” Apollo-Ridge coach Matt Gourley said. “It’s been an historic run for our school. They’ve enjoyed it. They’ve got their heads up high in there. It’s been a blast for everybody that follows us, myself, my coaches and the whole school. It’s really been a lot of fun for us.”
The fun continued through the first half for Apollo-Ridge, which grabbed 16 first-half offensive rebounds — Northern Cambria grabbed the same number of defensive boards in that span. The extra scoring chances helped the Vikings as they opened the game on a 14-6 run and led by as many as nine in the first half before going into the break leading 28-24.
“We got a nice little lead there,” Gourley said, “but when you play that way, you’re going to foul, and that’s what happened to us.”
Fouls were just one of several problems the Vikings faced in the second half, though. The Colts got rebounder Nick Lee involved after his own foul trouble early, and they slowed things down on offense, getting the ball inside to Jeff Hogan, the 6-foot-3 forward, who scored nine of his 16 points in the second half and led Northern Cambria with 12 rebounds.
“I think our experience helps us,” Hogan said. “The last four years we’ve been in the state playoffs, so we know what it feels like to be here. I don’t think any of us got really nervous at all during the game, and I think that helped us tremendously.”
“When we were struggling to get offense, down four or six points, we went to him on back-to-back possessions in the block,” Weber said. “He delivered two big-time baskets. It just seemed like whenever we were in a position where Apollo was about to break us, we were able to go to Jeff, and Jeff stepped up in a big-time game on a big-time stage.”
Josh Bonatesta added 16 points and Adam Polites added 13 for the Colts. Lee finished with eight rebounds.
Tre Tipton paced Apollo-Ridge with a game-high 19 points, including several off offensive boards in the first half, and Connor Billingsley added 15 points.
“We follow a lot of basketball, so we knew they pulled a couple really big upsets,” Hogan said. “We knew we had good competition coming in. … Kudos to their guards, they were a lot quicker than we expected.”
“We were doing really well on the offensive rebounds,” Gourley said. “That just added to our misses. We’d get a rebound, miss it, get a rebound, miss it. We just kept missing the layups, but those guys did a great job on the boards.”
It kept the ball in the Vikings’ offensive half of the court, and Apollo-Ridge kept the pace fast early on, until Northern Cambria adjusted. The Colts took the ball up the court more slowly on offense, while backing off its press defense with a 1-2-2 halfcourt set in the second half.
“When the game began, I felt like they developed the tempo,” Weber said. “The game was being played at their pace. That wasn’t who we were, and these kids aren’t used to seeing that kind of play.”
The Colts’ win was their first in states since beating Union-Rimersburg two years ago. All of their state playoff experience had come at the Class A level until Saturday.
They advance to face District 5 champion and play-in winner Conemaugh Township in a second-round game Wednesday at a site and time to be determined.
“This is their 80th win since their freshman year,” Weber said of his senior class. “Here’s a group that’s just used to this. We were down three points going into the fourth quarter versus Richland, first round of the districts. We’re not here in this game or the last five games if we don’t have composure. It’s just been a mainstay.”